Between the sneezing office colleague and the sniffling child, it seems like germs are inescapable this time of year. Even with the increased likelihood of illness during the winter months, you can take some simple steps to stay well and avoid getting a cold or the flu.
Colds and influenza are brought on by viruses that cause infections of the respiratory tract - the nose, throat, air passageways and lungs. These infections are contagious and can be spread from person to person. Every year, the seasonal flu affects 5 to 20 percent of U.S. citizens and about 200,000 people are hospitalized with flu-related illnesses.
Most experts believe the flu virus is spread through the air, traveling on expelled droplets when an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks. It also lurks on surfaces, in the same way cold viruses get passed from person to person. Are you shaking hands a lot, maybe sharing a keyboard? Avoid touching your face until you can wash with soap and hot water or wipe with an alcohol-based hand cleanser. In addition to conscientious hand cleansing, these tips can help fend off and avoid spreading a cold or the flu:
- Eat healthy, stay hydrated, exercise and get enough sleep to promote a strong immune system
- Cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow, not your hand
- Clean shared surfaces like tables, toys and door handles with an anti-bacterial disinfectan
- Avoid touching your eyes and nose, common routes of germ entry
- Be cautious about food buffets and similar settings where germs can be spread from utensils and food items
- Stay away from sick people if you can, especially if you have a weakened immune system
- Get a flu shot
The best way to protect against the flu virus is to be vaccinated. The vaccine changes each year depending on what flu strains research has shown will be most prevalent in the population. A cold typically is a mild illness, but flu can cause serious complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis and even death. This year's flu season started early, with numerous cases reported in several states as early as October. Peak flu season usually comes in January or February, but individual exposure is unpredictable.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that seasonal mortality figures related to flu vary widely - from 3,000 to 49,000 over a 30-year surveillance period - depending on the severity and type of viruses seen each year. About 90 percent of adults who die are over 65 years old. While states are not required to report adult mortality figures related to flu, they must report pediatric deaths. From 2011 to 2012, 34 patients under 18 years old died from the flu; and 115 pediatric deaths occurred from 2010 to 2011.
The flu vaccination contains dead or weakened flu viruses. The vaccine can be injected with a shot or applied through a nasal spray. Once vaccinated, your body produces antibodies that protect you from the targeted flu viruses. This antibody protection develops about two weeks after the vaccine is administered. Some vaccinated people do get the flu, but they usually have a milder case. Others may contract a viral strain that isn't one of those targeted in the annual vaccination.
The CDC now recommends the annual flu vaccination for individuals 6 months and older. However, the agency's website has specific recommendations for people who have certain allergies, chronic illnesses and other characteristics. These people at high risk for flu complications are especially encouraged to get vaccinated:
- Pregnant women
- Children younger than 5, especially those between 2 and 6 months
- Adults 50 and older
- People with certain chronic medical conditions, including diabetes, asthma and chronic lung disease
- Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
- People who live with, care for or have regular contact with those at high risk for flu complications
Flu-related hospitalizations are rising earlier than usual this year. The last time flu season began this early was in the winter months of 2003 to 2004. More than 48,000 U.S. citizens died from the flu that year.
Unlike infections caused by bacteria, viral illnesses like colds and the flu do not respond to antibiotics. Health agencies and physicians are trying to educate patients and parents about this because scientific evidence shows overuse of antibiotics is making some bacteria strains less responsive to these essential medicines. Many ailments can be caused by both viruses and bacteria, including meningitis, pneumonia and diarrhea. With these illnesses, the cause should be determined before antibiotics are prescribed.
The usual medical advice for a cold or the flu is to treat the symptoms and wait it out. In severe flu cases, a doctor may prescribe an antiviral medicine that can help shorten the illness. Cold or flu symptoms that persist past 10 days, or get worse instead of better, may signal a bacterial infection or other ailment has developed that needs a doctor's assessment. A high or prolonged temperature also is a sign you should see a doctor - 103 degrees in children and 102 degrees in adults. Other reasons to seek medical treatment are pain or pressure in the chest, difficulty breathing, changes in skin color, confusion, lethargy, fainting, abdominal pain or vomiting.
Find out how to tell the flu from a cold and much more on the website flu.gov, managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
This article provided courtesy of Oconee Regional Medical Center.